Adapting a beloved text into a film or television series is a daunting task. In addition to pleasing die-hard fans, producers must also take into consideration those who have never encountered the property before. Some adaptations are good, some are better than the source material, and some are so god-awful that fans try to forget they ever existed. (Looking at you there, Tank Girl.) Let’s take a look at what works, what doesn’t, and just how one adaptation made it from page to screen. This time, we’re looking at Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (Last time: Best Comic Adaptations)
The Source Material
Neil Gaiman’s second solo novel, Stardust, was published in 1999. The author was already a well-known comics writer at that point, having penned the critically-acclaimed series, Sandman. Stardust was well-received, as people liked Gaiman’s fairy-tale style. Stardust is a pre-Tolkien fantasy, a story with myth and magic closer to traditional folklore than concrete mythology.
Stardust begins in 1839, though the majority of the story takes place 17 years later. The story revolves around a 17-year-old half-Faerie named Tristran and his search for a fallen star. He is infatuated with a local girl, Victoria, and plans on giving her the star as a gift to woo her. He isn’t even deterred when he discovers that the star is actually a lovely woman named Yvaine, and he tries to drag her back to his village just the same.
Unfortunately, Tristan isn’t the only one with the star on his mind. Six witch queens want her for a spell that will restore their youth (and kill her in the process). One of the witches goes on a quest to capture the star, tracking down Tristran and Yvaine. She is not the only danger to the duo, though she is the greatest.
Along the way, the star and the half-Fae get into many confrontations and adventures. They sail with sky-pirates, deal with angry princes fighting for their father’s throne, and eventually come face-to-face with the witches. Everything concludes with a fairy-tale ending, of course, though Gaiman throws in a few surprises.
The novel is easy to read, enchanting, and a lot of fun. It feels like a fairy tale for grown-ups, in the same vein as The Princess Bride.
Stardust was turned into a feature film in 2007. Directed by Layer Cake helmsman Matthew Vaughn, the film had a full roster of A-list stars and a good-sized budget. It did well enough at the box office, though it wasn’t a smash hit. The film was critically liked and did much better on home video than it did in theaters.
The movie’s cast is incredible. Tristan is portrayed by then-unknown Charlie Cox, who went on to become Netflix’s Daredevil. He’s adorable, and his transition from lovelorn small town boy to swashbuckling hero is great to watch. Claire Danes stars as the star herself, and Michelle Pfeiffer is deliciously evil as the witch chasing them down.
One particular standout, however, is Robert DeNiro as Captain Shakespeare, the nefarious pirate who takes Yvaine and Tristan aboard his lightning-catching airship. While he had done turns in comedy films like Analyze This and Meet the Parents, DeNiro still maintained a “man’s man” legend. In Stardust, he lets all of that go with silliness and fluff. Captain Shakespeare has a rather embarrassing secret, and it’s that reveal that shines brightest in the film.
This is one of those cases where both the book and movie are terrific, despite some large differences. The novel is very dry, with Gaiman’s particular wit and dark sense of humor. The characters are each a bit different, and the ending is different entirely.
One of the main differences between the book and the film is that the main witch in the novel is not entirely evil, but morally ambiguous. She is not evil so much as a product of her time and what she is. The ending of the novel really shows this, as she and the star meet and their fate is in her hands. Tristran plays less of a role in the ending, and there isn’t a big battle as there is in the film. (Tristran also became Tristan for the movie, as it’s much easier to pronounce.)
Another significant difference is the film’s tone. The book is a fairy tale, but it is traditionally dark, with a good deal of gore (and even a bit of sex). There’s none of that in the film, which is a very light PG-13. One scene in the film featuring a unicorn is much tamer than the book, where the unicorn is stabbed through the eye, becomes a zombie unicorn, and then is decapitated. (Thanks for the nightmares, Mr. Gaiman.)
Both the book and the film manage to capture the spirit of Stardust, and that’s what matters. They’re both fun and a little flighty, with interesting takes on traditional fairy tales.
Read more in our From Page to Screen series here.